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Born to Run - Understanding Our Heroes and Our Demons

I was fifteen years old and walking the aisles of my local record store, a neighborhood fixture back then. A friend at the time picked up a white and black cover that read “BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN - Born to Run”. He opened the jacket to a larger cover spread showing this scruffy guy with an electric guitar, leaning against a Black saxophonist, who was wearing a fedora, tight pants, and partly open shirt. My friend opened the inside jacket and stared reading through the lyrics of the title song. I heard no music. The words sounded cool. I bought the album.

Thus began an intense ten-year love affair with the music of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. I bought all subsequent albums, through “Born in the USA”, and attended four live concerts in the early ‘80s. I drifted away, as his music became more introspective and I left the country for a couple of years. But songs like “Rosalita”, “Thunder Road”, “Jungleland”, “Badlands”, and “Independence Day” remained a core part of my listening repertory. I memorized them all and can sing them from start to finish even now.

Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography Born to Run tells the story of these songs, his artistic growth, and the development of the E Street Band. As a fan, learning the genesis and progress of his career resonated most with me. It was interesting to find out how he learned to play, who inspired him, and how he met and developed relationships with his band mates. I also appreciated the descriptions of how he crafted his songs and how they fit together into his iconic albums. The first to admit that he is not gifted with a great voice, Springsteen does have an amazing record as a songwriter. In the tradition of artists like Bob Dylan, Springsteen crafted a musical voice that strongly melded words and music. In the tradition of others like the Rolling Stones, Springsteen built a hard rocking band that became unmatched in its ability to deliver raucous, intense, musically tight shows that go on for well over three hours.

Beyond this story, however, is the deeper description of Bruce Springsteen the person. His life growing up in Freehold, NJ is one of an outcast first son of an emotionally scarred father. Extended family and friends provided some respite, but as fans of Springsteen’s music are well aware, the relationship with his dad was a tense and somewhat unfulfilled part of his life, even as an adult. Happily, there is some reconciliation near the end, though the elder Springsteen wrestled with demons of mental illness during most of his life.

In fact, mental illness is a core backdrop of this book, and as someone who has listened to Bruce Springsteen’s music and watched him joyously perform five times in concert, I was surprised at first to learn how such issues affected him as well. The book describes long periods of depression, regular visits to doctors and hospitals, and pharmacological solutions to his darkest anxieties. It is a tribute to Bruce Springsteen, his family, his doctors, and most of all his wife Patti, that he has been able to get through all of this, though the book leaves me to wonder whether, still, at age 67, he will continue to suffer these devastating bouts during the rest of his life.

Thinking about the dichotomy between Bruce Springsteen’s performance persona and his inner self leads me to realize how unfamiliar I am on the subject of mental illness. And I suspect that I am not alone among the general public. So when we are amazed that someone whom we least suspect suffers from such an condition, it reveals how little we know. When we comment, off the cuff, about someone being “mentally ill”, “deranged”, “crazy”, “depressed”, or “schizo”, we reveal our ignorance and demean those suffering from real diseases. We don’t make the same types of comments about physical conditions. Mental illness remains one that is still open to misinterpretation and humiliation. Hopefully, as more well-known people such as Bruce Springsteen bring their stories to light, this ignorance and debasement will fade away.

And hopefully in time, politicians will stop using mental illness as a crutch to obfuscate a larger problem that they, willingly or not, choose to ignore. I’m talking in this case about comments following the most recent mass shooting in Texas. After those killings, President Trump stated, “This is a mental health problem at the highest level.” Guns, he was clear, were not the issue.

This ignores the fact that the overwhelming majority of mental illness sufferers don’t take automatic weapons and fire on innocent men, women, and children. This attitude also threatens to stigmatize and even pre-identify people as suspect who are no more statistically likely to commit such horrific crimes than someone with cancer or psoriasis. And it reads like an obvious dodge away from the real problem, when it is clearly obvious that if these killers did not have an arsenal of deadly weapons, their actions would have been either impossible or far less deadly.

Finally, stigmatizing mental illness by connecting it to cowardly acts of mass murder ignores the bravery that sufferers and their families demonstrate. During Springsteen’s deepest bouts of depression, just waking up was a monumental effort. Continuing to produce as an artist is another testament to his courage. Finally, baring his soul and detailing his story so publicly is an act that many of greater political stature may not have the strength to do. Bruce Springsteen’s classic songs are his gift to the world. The self-inspection and insights of his autobiography are perhaps an even greater legacy.

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